Any company should by now have learnt that its customers can talk about them, to massive effect, without their permission. (As the HuffPo says here, it is kind of a leap of logic to think that United Breaks Guitars lost the company 10% of its market capitalisation, but it certainly wasn’t good for them.) But today we can also pretty effectively organise without their permission. We can use functionality like Facebook groups to mobilise many people quickly. So far the manifestation of this has mostly been in the form of ‘stop energy’; most efforts have essentially threatened boycotts, often in an attempt to prevent the introduction of some new initiative. (For example 2007’s “Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-off” campaign, as recorded here by the Times and in this book by Clay Shirky.)
And, of course, firms are learning to combat this: Sometimes by actually doing stuff differently and treating their customers better – there’s greater pressure now to behave yourself because you never know when your short term plan to save a buck will be turned into a YouTube sensation and hammer your reputation; but mostly by applying traditional PR in a new context. Firms are re-learning for the internet age the need to be proactive and seek out dissatisfaction (dissent?) before it spreads. This involves getting out there on the web beyond their own customer feedback surveys.
One lesson for companies in the Facebook-Twitter age is that it’s probably not sensible to try to replicate a social media phenomenon on your own website. Don’t build a snazzy platform – a massively interactive website, a customer service forum – and try to bring consumers to your site in order to find out what they think. Instead go to where they already hang out, listen to what they’re saying in those places, and respond to them there. I think Twitter is the easiest of the new media to do this with. By setting up a few simple searches you can see whenever anyone mentions you and respond directly and immediately. The Wi-Fi hotspots guys Boingo once replied to me when I slated them on Twitter and I’ve loved them ever since.
Companies can combine this traditional PR end – go to where your critics are and counter them quickly – with new means for achieving it when they recognise the web 2.0 truism that, whether they like it or not, their own staff are already blogging and chatting and interacting with customers and potential customers all over the web. 11 years ago the Cluetrain Manifesto told companies how to capitalize on this emerging fact. Firstly companies should recognise that markets are conversations and that people like talking to people, not ‘brands’ talking to ‘demographics’. Secondly they should empower their own staff to get out there and join the conversation.
This does of course mean ordinary staff talking directly to customers, with all of the human imperfections that that entails, i.e. all of the things that would be avoided if a company attempted to strictly ‘manage their image’ and only let the CEO and a handful of spokesmen talk to the real world. But it should also mean – if as a company you’re doing your job right – that your staff are talking to more people, with more passion and more authenticity than any press spokesman could ever muster. The Cluetrain’s point was that in the internet age, that’s better business.
This has further implications for any company thinking about their presence on the web. For most companies (and especially those whose actual sales take place somewhere other than their own website, for example on a third party platform or actually face-to-face) the purpose of their website should be very straightforward. There’s often no reason that a company’s site should be anything more than a place for customers to get a bit more information about what’s being sold and to be reassured that the company is legitimate. It should contain a list of product information and a list of references. The real action – reaching out and connecting with potential customers, listening to them, helping them find the other information they need so they’ll buy from you, building community and making them want to buy from you repeatedly – takes place elsewhere.
One of the really significant things, then, about the social revolution that all this new technology is driving is that companies need to think differently about their employees. Every employee faces every customer. The key, I’d say, for a company that really wants to embrace the digital century is to align the interests (and personal brands) of their staff with the objectives of the company. In terms of their presence on the web, rather than directing the energies of its staff to maintain this company blog or that company Facebook account, a 21st century company might do better to help its people build their individual skills and reputations, set a big vision and a big goal, and then let its people go after that goal in emergent not determined ways. In a phrase stolen from the greatest HR policy PowerPoint ever made (it’s not a high bar but this is genuinely a great read), staff should be highly aligned but loosely coupled.
The reason that this is not woolly hippy talk that we’ve all heard before, since the sixties at least, is that previous arrivals of new technology have only slightly lowered the transaction cost of organization. The internet and social media have dramatically lowered this cost (this observation attributed to – who else? – Clay Shirky. Man, I should read some other books once in a while). It’s now more possible than ever before to coordinate a group’s objectives, without controlling the means by which it achieves them.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, Author of The Little Prince
…to be continued.